White on White

Copyright 2017 Bob Harvey and Diane Kelsay

Images by Bob Harvey and Diane Kelsay

This winter in Yellowstone, we were reminded once again about the challenges of making white on white images.

Those of us who venture into that icy environment (or those whose home base is attacked by Old Man Winter) often find ourselves staring at potential compositions that are indeed various interpretations of white.

Image is rime ice.

There are some things to think through to make such a composition work, but it doesn’t take rocket science.  Here’s what we do:

First, we’re working in the following camera set up:

Raw + JPEG image creation
Manual White Balance
Lowest available ISO
Spot meter
Manual (not program, aperture priority, shutter priority, or one of the kiddie modes)
Sharpening at neutral
Contrast at neutral
Saturation at neutral

We first adjust the white balance to match the light we think is closest to the ambient light – or the way we intend the final image to play out.

Then there’s the challenge of determining a trial exposure.  This is what gets most people in trouble. 

Any of the non-manual modes will set up an exposure that moves the white snow toward a middle tone – unless you play all kinds of gymnastics with exposure compensation.  There’s no fun in struggling through all of this.

Working in manual, using the spot meter, we can often find a middle tone nearby that is lighted with the same quality of light.  When this is the case, we can use that reading to set up a trial exposure. 

We make a trial exposure and review it. 

On our digital camera backs, we see flashing when highlights lose detail (are blown out).  That’s the first thing we check.  We know that in the RAW mode we can recover some highlight detail that appears blown out, but there’s no reason in a white on white image to force that issue.  (Note: in some compositions we might choose to design the image with some highlight detail blown out.)


The second thing we check is whether there is adequate separation between the various white components of the composition.  While this can be enhanced later in Photoshop, we may find that a new camera angle will improve on the situation.

The third thing to check in the review screen is the histogram.  If your composition is truly shades of white, the data recorded on your histogram should show up in the right 1/2 to 1/4 of your graph.  You don’t want the histogram crashing into the right edge of the graph – that would indicate blown out highlights as discussed above.  And, you don’t want too much data wandering down into the mid tones (unless there truly are some mid tones in your composition).

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